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Mr. Dalyell: Before rational and possibly difficult decisions are made in this area, we should know what progress is being made in the basic science of the matter. I am told by Peter Wilson, the former head of the huge Bush complex, that very important work has been curtailed in the neuropathogens unit because the work has been done on hamsters, as there is insufficient money to experiment on big animals. It is tragic that such important work has been curtailed at this time.

What is happening in relation to the examination of prions? Some evidence is coming forward that it is not just a matter of the temperatures that food is subjected to, but the fats that may protect the prions. This is the root science of the matter. Until these matters are resolved, it may be difficult to persuade other countries to lift the bans.

Mr. Hogg: I make no complaint to the hon. Gentleman, but--if he will forgive me for saying so--his intervention sounded more like a speech. I have no doubt that he will be seeking to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, or that of your successor in the Chair during the next two days, and detailed points in response to the hon. Gentleman's questions will be made during the winding-up speeches.

I wish to refer to the discussion about the selective cull. Much of that discussion ignores the true nature of BSE. BSE is not a highly infectious disease like foot and mouth, which can be contained and eradicated by a slaughter policy. The cause of BSE lies in the feed that was fed to cattle. In 1988, by excluding the use of ruminant protein in cattle rations, we took the step that was necessary to eliminate the incidence of BSE in the national herd.

As a consequence, there has been a dramatic and continuing decline in the numbers of confirmed cases. The peak was reached in 1992, with a total of 36,681 confirmed cases. Last year, there were 14,062 confirmed cases. This year, we expect a further reduction of around 40 per cent., and the trend will continue until, by the end of the decade, the incidence in the national herd will be extremely low--probably in the region of 2,000 confirmed cases, although independent estimates suggest an even lower figure.

To reinforce the policy, and because we accept that some ruminant protein containing the infective agent must have been fed to cattle after 1988--hence those cases

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involving animals born after the ban--we have decided that, as from 29 March this year, there will be a total ban on the incorporation of mammalian protein into any rations for farm animals.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Hogg: In a moment.

There can be no justification for the wholesale slaughter of UK cattle. Any selective cull needs to be proportionate in terms of benefit and risk and to be seen in the context of measures to lift the ban. To the best of our ability, we must ensure that a cull is targeted on those beasts that are most likely to develop BSE.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose--

Mr. Hogg: I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but I am conscious that I have not yet given way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). I shall do so in a moment.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen the article in The Veterinary Record of 6 January 1990 which refers to a study of the inheritance of susceptibility to BSE, and not the inheritance of BSE itself? Has any further work been done in that area?

Mr. Hogg: Work has been done and is continuing on the possibility of vertical transmission, which I think is the point that my hon. Friend is making. We hope to be able to publish the results of that work at the end of the year. I am reluctant to authorise a break in the study earlier than was intended, because of the fear that that could invalidate the results.

Mr. Viggers: It is good of my right hon. and learned Friend to give way to me. He will know that I am worried about the headboning industry. Many parts of the meat industry can mitigate their losses or draw profit from other areas, but headboning tends to be a specialist industry in which people have borrowed money to meet European requirements. Now the industry has gone completely, because of Government regulation.

I am aware that my right hon. and learned Friend is relying on legal advice to say that no compensation is payable to headboners. I would ask him, however, whether that is fair.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend has fought strenuously for the cause of his constituents, and has put their case with great eloquence. I have not found it easy to deal with, because it is perfectly true that people have been put out of business. It is equally true that Governments of all political complexions have done what I am doing. It is therefore important to adhere to precedent. My hon. Friend is right about the legal principle; I am most unwilling to depart from an established precedent, in spite of the eloquence with which my hon. Friend has argued this case.

The crisis in the beef industry has been a devastating blow, but concerned though we are about the plight of this sector, we must recognise, and take every opportunity

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to assert, that, over the past four years, British agriculture has experienced a remarkable improvement in its fortunes. Judged by any standards, the prosperity of British farming is soundly based.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hogg: I want to conclude with some final observations. My Department has two duties. Of course we fight for the interests of the British farmer and for those in related industries. Their concerns are our concerns, their interests are our responsibilities. We have an overriding and paramount obligation to every consumer, however, to the public and to all our fellow citizens. It is a duty to ensure the safety of the food we grow and the products we consume. No interest, no concern, and no obligation is greater than that.

5.11 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East): It is regrettable that the House of Commons is being forced to hold its annual agriculture debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. The Government have driven a coach and horses through the procedures of the House. They have contravened the explicit recommendation of the Select Committee on European Legislation--that the common agricultural policy price proposals

and warrant

    "an early debate by the House rather than by European Standing Committee A."

The Government have, therefore, prevented the House from expressing its views through amendments to a proper motion, and have prevented us from tabling amendments in relation to the beef crisis. We can only conclude that the Government were in real fear of amendments and the consequent Divisions that might have taken place. It is indeed ironic that the Government's divisions over Europe have led them to undermine the authority of the Houses of Parliament.

Of course we welcome the fact that the debate has been extended to two days--a fact of which the Minister made great play--but I put it to him that if the British Government told the British people that the general election campaign would be double its normal length but that there would not necessarily be a proper ballot at the end of it, the electorate would not think that the process of democracy had been adequately served.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The hon. Gentleman should cut the lather and get to the point--which is that he would have made the same speech whatever motion had been tabled, so his objections are entirely bogus.

Dr. Strang: I have had the privilege of being a Member of this House for almost 26 years. One thing people learn in that time is that their real power in the House lies in their vote. We need to be able to vote on a meaningful motion, and we are being denied that opportunity.

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham) rose--

Dr. Strang: I may give way later. A great many people want to intervene, but I shall give way only on the big issues--and the big issue here is the beef crisis.

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I was rather surprised to hear the Minister say that British agriculture is the most prosperous in the European Union. If he had said that before 20 March, I would not have queried it. The beef crisis, however, is likely to have an enormous impact on this country. I realise that beef prices are also depressed in other EU countries, not least in Germany, but there are huge knock-on effects in the United Kingdom--in the export industry, for example. Much of Northern Ireland's beef production is for export; the same applies to the north-east of Scotland. In England and Wales, too, there are herds and plants dedicated almost exclusively to the export market, so I find it hard to believe that British agriculture is the most prosperous in the Union.

Mr. Beggs: About 80 per cent. of beef production in Northern Ireland has to be exported. Instead of waiting for the Commission to come up with meagre proposals, should not the Minister take up the opportunity offered by quality assurance schemes in Scotland and traceability in Northern Ireland? Surely it would be better to save herds that have never had a case of BSE than to dump them in skips for rendering?

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